Study: Kids' Bad Behavior May Predict Adult Pain

Bad behavior in childhood is associated with chronic pain in adult life, according to the findings of a study following people from birth in 1958 to the present day. In the study, children with severe behavior disturbances had approximately double the risk of chronic widespread pain by the time they reached the age of 45 than children who did not have behavior problems.

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Next, bad behavior in children. It's hard on everyone - parents, teachers, the kids themselves. Now, a study from Scotland says acting up could be a sign of a physical problem, one that might have consequences in adulthood. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: This is the story about 8,500 people born in the same week in 1958 in the United Kingdom. Researchers started studying them then, and they're still studying them today.

Gary Macfarlane, a Scottish epidemiologist, has plowed through the records. He's interested in pain, specifically: Is there anything in childhood that predicts who will have frequent aches and pains in adulthood? And he and his colleagues have found something.

Professor GARY MACFARLANE (Epidemiologist): We found that we could identify a group of children who were about twice as likely to report chronic, widespread pain as adults based on what either of their parents or teachers had reported about their behavior when they were 7, 11 and 16.

SILBERNER: The adults with chronic pain were more likely to have a history of having stolen or lied, or been bullies or skipped school, as kids. McFarland says it's possible the bad kids were more likely to develop painful health problems like arthritis.

But maybe - and this is what he's trying to determine now - maybe they've got a disruption in their hormonal system, the system that responds to stress and physical and emotional pain, that could make them more prone to misbehave as kids, and more prone to sense physical pain as adults. But McFarland says if you're in pain now, that certainly doesn't mean you were a bad kid.

Prof. MACFARLANE: Of people who have chronic pain in adulthood, these factors in childhood probably affect a very small percentage - perhaps only about one in 20.

SILBERNER: Macfarlane's study, reported in the journal Rheumatology, has gotten the attention of other researchers who study relationships between behavior and health - researchers like Charles Raison, with the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University.

Dr. CHARLES RAISON (Psychiatrist and researcher, Emory University): This is an extremely powerful study design because you need to ask things at a time years and years ago - and have no idea what the future's going to hold.

SILBERNER: It invites one to wonder: Could effectively dealing with bad behavior prevent a painful adulthood? Raison strongly suspects yes. But he says that conclusion would be nearly impossible to prove scientifically. You'd have to figure out an effective way to prevent bad behavior, use it in only half of a group of badly behaved kids, and compare the two groups 30 or 40 years later.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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